Attrition: The U.S. Army Shrinks To Survive

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March 6, 2014:   The U.S. Army is planning on reducing its personnel strength to 420,000 by the end of the decade. This would be its lowest strength since just before the U.S. entered World War II in 1941. There was a similar experience during World War I when the army expanded from 200,000 in early 1917 to 3.6 million in December 1918. It had shrunk to 225,000 during the 1930s. In mid-1940 it was at 260,000 and expanded to 8.2 million by late 1945. But 28 percent of that was the Army Air Force which a few years later became a separate service. So actual army strength went from 160,000 in 1940 to 5.9 million in late 1945 and dropped to 591,000 by 1950. The army had another spurt of growth (to over a million) during the Korean War, shrank again in the late 1950s then expanded to over a million again for the Vietnam War in the 1960s. For the rest of the Cold War it stayed at about 730,000 then fell to 499,000 in the late 1990s because of the post-Cold War demobilization. That only increased to 560,000 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mainly because there was no conscription as there had been in the World Wars and until 1972. What the army had done after World War II was expand the reserves to over 500,000 troops. These were trained and most were capable of being sent into combat. Before World War II the reserves (almost all the National Guard, which are controlled by the states in peacetime) numbered 300,000. Back in 1940 the National Guard was not as well trained and equipped as it is today but it was organized and was easier to get ready for combat than new conscripts.

Until the 20th century the U.S. Army was small in peacetime. That changed when conscription was revived in 1917. It was briefly used by the Union during the Civil War. Conscription was never popular anywhere during its brief history (about two centuries), and never worked very well either. It won’t return to use in the United States for the same reason it disappeared in Britain in the late 1950s, and would have gone the same way in the U.S. during the 1960s had there been no Vietnam war. The main reason that conscription doesn’t work is that in most countries, there are far more young men becoming eligible for military service each year than the military needs. So someone has to decide who will serve and who won’t. This leads to widespread discontent over how unfair it is that some go, and others do not.

In the European nations that first instituted conscription in the 19th century, everyone who was physically able was taken for two or more years, and then assigned to a reserve unit when they left active service. The idea was that the active army was basically a training organization for the wartime army of reservists.  This meant that huge armies could be maintained at a fraction of the cost of a standing (full of active duty troops) army. The “reserve system” was used in a number of wars in the late 19th century, and then in the two World Wars. After World War II, the availability of nuclear weapons, and lots of other high tech weapons and equipment, made large armies less useful. By the end of the 20th century it was obvious to all that an army of professional soldiers was far more effective than one that contained a lot of conscripts.

Another problem was that, even in those countries where “everyone went,” corruption eventually set in and everyone didn’t. Or strings were pulled and favored sons went in and received special treatment, spending his two years in some pleasant assignment that kept him out of danger and quite comfortable. This sort of thing even went on in dictatorships. By the time the communist governments in Eastern Europe and Russia collapsed, the corruption in their ”universal conscription” was one of the reasons for the collapse.

Those of us who were of draft age during the 1960s remember that the unfairness of the system was a major source of discontent. And this discontent was there before the Vietnam War became an issue. Indeed, for most young men during the 1960s, the draft was more of an issue than the war. You could always avoid combat by joining the air force or navy. And if you were a college student or graduate, you could go into the army secure in the knowledge that you would almost certainly get a non-combat job. So poisonous did the attitude towards conscription become during the 60s that looking for ways to avoid service (faking a physical or psychological problem, or even bribery of draft officials) was done quite openly. Vietnam didn’t end the peacetime draft in the United States but having too many people eligible for it did.

The “Baby Boom” generation was coming of age during the 1960s. That meant over 1.5 million young men turned 18 each year. But the military needed less than half that number. Even at the peak years of the war, there were many more young men available for the draft than were needed. With thousands of young men getting killed in Vietnam each year, parents, as well as the kids, were more than a little upset at how so many kids were never called, or received one deferment (usually for higher education) after another.

The situation hasn’t changed. Most kids don’t want to go off and be a soldier for a year or two. But there are still plenty of young men and women who want to volunteer. And it's not for the poor and uneducated either. Less than half of those eligible for the draft would qualify to volunteer for the peacetime force.  And the American army learned that the volunteers they have been using since the early 1970s make much better soldiers. It was the army that was always getting nearly all the draftees. During the Vietnam period, even the marines were able to get by almost entirely on volunteers. The draftees all went to the army, because so many young men realized that they could honorably avoid getting shot at by volunteering for the air force or navy. This meant three, instead of two, years of service. But what the hell, at least you lived to talk about it. With all those volunteers, and that extra year of service, the air force and navy got more out of their new recruits.

Since 1940, when the first American peacetime draft was started, the army found that they liked being able to grab all those well-educated kids that had rarely, in the past, joined the army. This was the main argument the army made in opposing the end of conscription. The air force and navy were not happy for similar reasons, as the draft had driven a lot of high quality volunteers their way because the alternative was being an army draftee. With no conscription, the air force and navy would have to get out there and hustle for recruits. And then there was the problem of pay. With no draftees filling up the lower ranks, the pay for entry level recruits would have to be competitive with civilian jobs.

But historians, and those noting how the British were doing (they had gone all-volunteer by the early 1960s), realized that there would be no problem with an all-volunteer force. Historians also knew that a “professional” (all volunteer) army was a more effective one. This did not become generally accepted in the United States until the 1991 Gulf War.

There is a form of the draft that might someday be used. There is, for example, a list of young medical professionals who could be drafted in the event of a major military emergency. The doctors and nurses involved are not all keen on getting called up, but they are not making a lot of noise about their unhappiness. Another list of computer specialists is also under consideration. This concept of only drafting the "best and the brightest" has not, yet, been controversial.

While most people now realize that an all-volunteer force is superior, many still forget why a conscripted force could not compete, survive, or revive. But some politicians are not bothered by reality or historical lessons, and persist in calling for reinstating the draft. It will never happen, as 80 percent of American voters oppose it. Most people in the military would not want draftees either. And the potential draftees themselves are not particularly enthusiastic.

 

 


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